Sight-Reading with your Middle Level Ensemble? Take a New Look at a Word Wall.

Sight-Reading with your Middle Level Ensemble?  Take a New Look at a Word Wall.

By Casey Clementson


Have you ever sight-read a new piece of music with your middle school band and it went really well? Your students were intrigued by the music and eager to “dig in”? Or did the opposite happen and sight-reading turned into a chaotic mess of notes and mistakes followed by reactionary student chatter? My students usually fell into the latter category until a recent school-wide professional development day gave our department a new idea that works!

As part of a school-wide initiative at our middle school, 6th grade teachers are involved in teaching reading and writing as part of the Literacy Collaborative. One technique in this reading and writing model is to create lists of questions or words for brainstorming or working through problems using 3M Easel Paper. We’ve adapted this process to create a Word Wall for sight-reading music.


Word Wall for All Ye Young Sailors by Pierre LaPlante. Photo by Casey Clementson
Word Wall for All Ye Young Sailors by Pierre LaPlante. Photo by Casey Clementson


You may have a Word Wall in your classroom – terms and symbols situated into an engaging bulletin board display.  But until the students make the connection between what is on your Word Wall and their music, sight-reading will continue to be a chore. Here’s how a sight-reading Word Wall works:

  1. When performing a new piece of music for the first time, ask students to mark with a pencil or highlighter anything that is confusing or unfamiliar on their music.
  2. Ask students to share what they marked – any questions or confusions they may have about the music. Honor every statement that is made by writing down the term or symbol the students describe – I write directly on our whiteboard while my colleague hangs up a big piece of butcher paper and writes on that.  Group similar terms or symbols together – rhythms can go in one area, dynamics symbols and terms in another, and so on.
  3. After the list is created, explain each term or allow students to explain it to each other.
  4. Play the music, stopping at natural breaking points (such as measure marker numbers) and asking specifically: What else did you find that was confusing? Add those to the Word Wall.
  5. In subsequent rehearsals, revisit your Word Wall. I take a photo of the Word Wall and turn it into a PowerPoint slide for easy retrieval.




Why does this work? Creating a Word Wall changes the process of sight-reading from teacher-led to student-led:

  • Students actively study and ask questions.
  • Students help each other answer their own questions.
  • Students realize they need information to be successful – one of the facets of literacy in any language, including the language of music.
  • Students feel that their voice has been heard during creation of the Word Wall. They know it’s okay to not know all the answers.  

Using a Word Wall allows teachers to use instructional language that James Gee calls just in time and on demand.  Gee states that “just in time” means giving a short piece of language right when it can be applied to the experience. “On demand” means longer stretches of talk, symbols, and texts when learners are ready for them, prepared for them, and need them. Creating a student-centered Word Wall helps students discover what they need to sight-read and why they need to know it. It’s this process of discovery that creates authentic learning, even when sight-reading.

If you dread sight-reading, give the Word Wall a try this spring.  Let us know how it works!

About the Author:

April 4 - Casey Clementson bio pic

NAfME member Casey Clementson has 17 years of teaching experience in public schools and at the college level, including Rosemount Middle School in Rosemount, Minnesota. Her research has been published in Interval: The Journal of the Minnesota Music Educators Association and Contributions to Music Education.

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